By the time I was 10, I had a hazy, perhaps crazy, idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Not for me the glamour of piloting a Spitfire, (there were lots of them flying around at the time). Nor did I want to drive the massive “Flying Scotsman” locomotive from my home town to London every day.
That’s the sort of thrill my classmates hankered after. No…..I fancied a larger role and a quieter life, with lots of world travel, the best of food and drink, plus the chance to wear a clean shirt every day, with a bow tie and a claw hammer black jacket. “Bill the butler” seemed like a good career choice to me, but naturally I expected to be called Mister by everyone in the manor house, and on occasion William, by his lordship.
This ambition of mine was initially fed by two comical sources. I devoured the exploits of P.G Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who was rescued regularly by Jeeves, his indispensable, learned and unflappable manservant, and also by the Hollywood movie My Man Godfrey. I saw it twice. In those days I was at a highly impressionable age, although I indignantly denied the charge by my bosom buddy, that the real reason for this unusual career path was influenced by one of those naughty seaside peep shows, everybody’s holiday favourite……What the Butler Saw!
My mother was in service to a wealthy Northumbrian family in her late teens. She reminisced occasionally, that living in the Big House was hard work with poor pay, but she was always treated kindly, ate well and enjoyed one afternoon and evening off, every week.
But she emphasized that the snobbish pecking order below stairs was a daily fact of life, and she learned two priorities while she was there: servants who were not in livery had to be virtually invisible, never to be seen upstairs and also, the family butler always stood head and shoulders above the rest of the staff. He set the standard of service which contributed to the reputation of the house and of the people who owned it. His word was law on both levels, upstairs and down, as to how things should be done. The job sounded absolutely perfect. I became sold on a career of butling for the high and the mighty.
Inevitably my zeal to rule a houseful of servants in country estates and London palaces began to lose steam. I even figured that living in a Parisian garret, daubing paint on canvas, surrounded by semi-clad models, was more my style. Of course as time went by these aspirations changed, but I always retained an interest in the role of the butler and how much the wealthy relied on him, and on the rest of us peons in the lower classes, to keep them in the style to which they felt entitled. And obviously that same interest continues to be shared around the world today, hence the enormous popularity of such blockbuster entertainments as Downton Abbey, which I discussed in my column last month.
I found it interesting to examine these traditional servant roles because they were very diverse, and still are, so let me share some thoughts with you. We’ll start at the top, with the butler. Originally he was the household’s wine and ale steward who commanded the “buttery”, where the barrels were kept. In later years he was given charge of the family meals from breakfasts to banquets, laying a proper table for each occasion with cutlery, glassware and huge bouquets from the house gardeners.
In the big mansions, liveried footmen served the meals under the butler’s eagle eye. Having come up through the ranks from around the age of 12, there wasn’t a job in the household that he didn’t thoroughly understand, though the female staff was usually the responsibility of a housekeeper, a formidable martinet in many cases who shared his priority for discipline and detail.
A good butler has always been a treasure to the master and particularly to the mistress of the house — a self-educated superior being, discreet in every way, able to put guests at their ease, answer questions about the food on the plates or the wine being served, and if pressed, what race horse had won the Derby that very afternoon. There were many legendary butlers, and some were lured away by envious gentry to better paying positions in grander establishments. Guests always tipped the butler on taking their leave, which more than matched the man’s salary, so that many of them were able to afford a servant or two in their retirement.
One in particular, after a lifetime of private service, was rich enough to establish Claridge’s in London. It opened in 1856 and the hotel soon became a favourite of royalty and European heads of state. These days, the smart set is happy to pay 1,200 pounds for an overnight stay in one of the smaller suites. That doesn’t include tips of course. But they do throw in breakfast.
There are many stories of legendary butlers. The most famous is probably Edwin Lee, who served Lord Aster for almost half a century and held the reins with an iron grip at the magnificent Cliveden estate. The forceful personality of Lady Astor sorely tested Lee’s patience, so much so, that one day in exasperation, he threatened to resign. Horrified, the lady of the house replied “In that case Lee, I beg you to tell me where you’re going, because I’m coming with you!”
The members of Britain’s royal family, with their many town homes and country retreats, have always been cosseted by an army of servants, whose wages are partly paid by the over-taxed population. It takes 1,200 men and women to serve in a variety of posts across all five royal residences. Buckingham Palace alone employs 339 full time staff. Naturally there just isn’t one man there who does the butling, there’s a whole team of under butlers and then below them are the footmen, and the valets, and so on down the line, to the young beginners in the pantries.
Once someone learns their trade there, a good reference is a guarantee of a top job elsewhere. Recently a former footman who spent three years at the palace was persuaded to move to the States as personal butler to a Texas billionaire. The carrot was a salary of $75,000 plus a house and two cars!
A surprising number of today’s households will understand exactly how Lady Aster felt at the prospect of losing a vital key to her luxurious lifestyle. There are now more butlers managing Mayfair mansions than there were in the 1930s and an estimated 3,000 are currently working around the U.K. After the last war, some social commentators predicted that, by the ’60s, this role would simply fade away, together with the House of Lords and expensive private schools. The pundits were so wrong. The advent of television programs chronicling the lives of people upstairs and those below, has actually given a boost to the popularity of employing butlers, those all-seeing, all-knowing founts of efficiency.
In the Middle East, China, Russia and India, the wealthy have acquired British butlers as ultimate status symbols. There are schools in the U.K. that train staff to perform the traditional major domo roles that were honed in Victorian and Edwardian days, and there are companies in London which place these people around the world in private homes, embassies and royal palaces.
We’re told that not all butlers were the epitome of rectitude. Historically, some less scrupulous were not averse to quaffing the master’s private reserve or having a little fun at their employers’ expense. An anecdote involving Edwardian political hostess Mrs. Ronnie Granville is worth repeating. She suspected her butler of having had a go at the sherry before serving in the dining room and wrote him a hasty note: “You are drunk. Leave the room at once!” Her butler received the note with a slight bow, placed it on a tray, walked around the table and presented it to one of her guests, the aquiline, toffee-nosed Tory MP, Austen Chamberlain. Sadly we don’t know the outcome of this marvelous initiative.
Well, so much for butlers, those indispensable servants like Lee, Jeeves and Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson.
They still play an imperious role in the lives of those who can afford them. But history reminds us of the stark necessity for so many lesser people to live and work below stairs, because for centuries, a life in service was much preferable to eking out a meagre living in various other ways — in the dirty, mindless, serf-like jobs that the burgeoning population of cheap labour was expected to perform. The terrible alternative was being unemployed in an uncaring society, when often desperate men, their wives and their children, literally starved.
Wasn’t it Charles Dickens who alone sustained his family at the age of 11, by working in a blacking factory 12 hours a day, while his father languished in a debtor’s prison?
The statistics I’ve been reading are a sobering reminder that in those hard times, by serving the rich, so many of the poor survived.
(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)